Green thumb

The spacious dirt patch, taking up a significant chunk of the southside Indianapolis backyard, has been weeded, planted, tended to and cared for since the 1970s.

Dave Salamone walked around the edge, pointing out the varieties he had already started growing this spring. English peas butt up against a fence. Cabbage leaves burst from the ground. Rows of onions poked into the air. Lettuce, radishes and spinach reached towards the sun in different plotted areas.

Gardening is a tradition in the Salamone family. His father tilled and planted this same patch, and now it’s tended by Salamone.

“We’re third generation Italian gardeners,” he said. “I just like to see things grow. I like to eat the produce, and since I’m retired now, it gives me something to do, a hobby. It’s my little piece of the earth.”

Salamone wants to help spread his passion for gardening, and allow others to sow the joy that it can bring. He will host a series of three workshops at the new Clark-Pleasant branch of the Johnson County Public Library in May, with individual classes focusing on growing beans, corn and members of the gourd family such as melons, squash and cucumbers.

In his role as a Johnson County master gardener, he hopes to help others experience the benefits of tending a garden.

“It’s really rewarding to do that. I’d never done anything like that,” he said. “I try to make it really a hands-on experience, rather than academic and scientific.

The three free classes are structured to provide basics for new gardeners, as well as tips for those who have been digging in the dirt for years.

People can learn how to plant beans, raise corn and prevent pests from getting into it, and find out all about the cucurbit family, which includes gourds, squash and cucumbers.

Salamone recently finished the Master Gardener training at Purdue Extension Johnson County, part of which requires the completion of volunteer work helping others garden. His wife, Sue, works at the Clark-Pleasant library as a children’s librarian, and she helped connect her husband with library organizers to plan the classes.

“You have to have 40-some hours of community service to become certified, so I decided I’d do mine helping to grow tomatoes,” he said.

Salamone worked closely with Sarah Hanson, the extension director for Johnson County, to put the sessions together. She helped publicize and spread the word about the workshops.

“Once he signed up for the class and got in there, I realized that he is serious about gardening. He knew a lot,” Hanson said. “He’s really good, really organized and really caring, teaching for free and giving away plants.”

Salamone already taught one seminar at the library, which help from the extension office, on planting tomatoes — one of his specialties. Standing in his backyard, Salamone pointed out where his batch of tomato plants would go. Already, the young plants had a head start on the growing season.

In his basement, he has a table filled with shoots, already a couple of inches tall, that have been thriving under an indoor grow light.

“These will really be healthy when these go in the ground around the middle of May,” he said.

The two varieties he’s growing both have unique and interesting backstories. The first is the San Marzano tomato — a uniquely shaped variety famous for its rich flavor and mild acidity, perfect for pasta sauces. His cousin sent him the seeds straight from Italy.

“This is what Italians grow. These are grown around the Sarno Valley, around Mt. Vesuvius,” Salamone said.

His second variety, an heirloom version known as “Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomato,” originated in West Virginia, he said. In the 1940, the owner of a radiator repair shop deep in the mountains was able to create the variety, crossbreding with other established types, which became so popular among local residents that he sold enough plants to pay off his mortgage.

“He was on a quest to buy a really large, great tasting tomato,” Salamone said. “He’d sell the plants for $1 each, and over six years, he sold over 6,000 of these plants.”

Every year, the Salamone family gathers to cook down the harvest and make pasta sauce — carrying on a tradition that started with his grandparents’ when they lived in the Fountain Square area.

They bought a tomato milling machine, and after scalding the tomatoes, they run the fruit through to remove the paste from the skins and get rid of the core.

“All of the seeds and that stuff goes in one bucket, and all of the other stuff goes in another bucket,” he said. “We cook it down to make tomato juice and spaghetti sauce. We got about six gallons last year.”

Sue Salamone added, “We freeze it, we don’t can it. Then we use it for Sunday dinner — we have spaghetti every Sunday. Make some meatballs and some sausage to go with it.”

The gardening courses are free and open to the public. The beans session will be held May 3, the corn class on May 10 and the cucurbit session on May 24.

“It’s really a chore to start a new garden, like if you move into a new subdivision and break ground for the first time,” Dave Salamone said. “If I can help people, I want to do that.”